Story Jonah Raskin
Bayer, the global chemical giant that bought Monsanto in 2016 for $66 billion, announced recently it was laying off 4,500 workers at its huge manufacturing plant in Germany. Demand for its controversial product, Roundup, has fallen drastically. Also, Bayer stocks have plunged in the wake of headline news that a federal jury in San Francisco ordered Monsanto to pay about $80 million to Edwin Hardeman, a longtime Sonoma County resident who used Roundup for 26 years to control weeds and poison oak on his own property.
Not surprisingly, Bayer stockholders are wondering if the purchase of Monsanto was a sound investment, though that wasn’t Edwin Hardeman’s problem. He had his own health to worry about, and so it would seem does everyone who has lived and worked in Sonoma County, which has the third highest rate of cancer for children in California, according to the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health. The county’s “Sustainable Sonoma” campaign has been a step in the right direction, but now it appears to have fallen short of promoting chemical protection for humans and the environment, which also need sustainability.
In their 2017 book, What’s Making Our Children Sick? Marin County pediatrician Michelle Perro and UC Berkeley Professor Vincanne Adams, argue that kids in the North Bay and elsewhere have impaired guts and damaged immune systems because they’re “chronically exposed to poisons in their environment, and specifically in and from their food.”
Kids, the book argues, are literally eating toxic chemicals. Adults are better off, but according to the National Cancer Institute, Sonoma County ranks 15th in cancer rates for adults in California.
Roundup, which doesn’t just kill weeds and poison oak, seems to be part of the problem. Its active ingredient, glyphosate, gets into the soil, into groundwater and into the air, polluting and contaminating. It also makes its way into the human body, where it wreaks havoc. Padi Selwyn, one of the founders of Preserve Rural Sonoma County, has done extensive research on the issue, which leads her to the conclusion that, “Our paradise is poisoned with herbicides and pesticides.”
Monsanto’s line-up of GMO crop products—corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton—were all designed around the use of glyphosate-based herbicides, giving the company two fat revenue streams—their GMO seeds and the Roundup the company claimed was required to grow them. The result, besides billions of dollars for Monsanto/Bayer, is the most widely distributed agricultural chemical in history, with annual use in the United States of 300 million pounds.
In 2015, Edwin Hardeman learned he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that starts with white blood cells, which are part of the body’s immune system, and then typically spreads throughout the body. In 2016, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) labeled glyphosate a probable carcinogen. That information gave Hardeman the green light. He hired lawyers and sued Monsanto.
Three decades earlier, in 1985, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that Roundup probably caused cancer, but sat on the evidence at the direction of its Pesticide Office, which was promoting the position of “no cancer risk” from glyphosate. And despite the WHO’s labeling of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, the EPA released its draft risk assessment in 2017, determining that “glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”
Part of the problem with companies such as Monsanto and Bayer—as experts in viruses and human genetics have pointed out—is that they test their own products and report that they’re safe.
Even after the landmark decision in the Hardeman case in San Francisco, Bayer issued a statement that, “This verdict does not change the weight of four decades of extensive science that report the safety of our glyphosate-based herbicide and that they are not carcinogenic.”
Still, there was no way for health-conscious American citizens to ignore the federal jury in San Francisco that found Roundup contributed in a “substantial” way to Hardeman’s cancer, and that Monsanto had failed to print a label on its product warning it had the potential to cause cancer. The six-person jury in the trial concluded that the company was negligent and could be held legally responsible.
News of the San Francisco ruling traveled quickly around the world, birthing an instant online legal industry soliciting Roundup victims, and inspiring some local changes in Roundup use policy. In Sonoma County, where the Department of Transportation & Public Works has for years sprayed chemicals like Roundup along roadsides and in ditches, the cities of Sonoma, Santa Rosa, Windsor, and Healdsburg have banned use of the product on public properties. Rohnert Park, Cotati, and Cloverdale still use toxic pesticides and have no bans. Other known products like Redeem, Sureguard, and Rodeo have so far not been banned, though they are also used by the county, and reputable scientists and doctors insist they can damage the liver and the kidney, cause birth defects and are potentially harmful to fish, birds, and other creatures.
The toxic news doesn’t end there. According to Santa Rosa–based Sonoma County Conservation Action (SCCA), the county’s spraying practices have been in violation of the standards for health and well-being set by the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) and the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). SCCA’s Megan Kaun wrote in an email that Sonoma County is “in violation of their storm water permit” and “literally hasn’t been able to track down pesticide use data for all of their departments.”
Johannes Hoevertsz, director of the Sonoma County Department of Transportation and Public Works, which overseas chemical spraying in unincorporated areas, had not returned emails or phone calls on the issue at press time. On federal and state highways 101, 12, and 116, Caltrans is responsible for spraying, and eyewitnesses report seeing spraying in recent weeks.
In Sonoma Valley, despite public health concerns, agriculture is by far the biggest user of glyphosate. The question of whether or not the chemical causes cancer may be coming into sharper focus thanks to the April, 2019, release of a report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The ATSDR draft report, “Toxicological Profile for Glyphosate,” supports and strengthens the 2015 IARC cancer risk assessment. Among other things, the report concludes the most studies show a “strongly positive” link between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
In today’s regulatory environment, of course, not everyone chooses to trust science. As the ATSDR report states, “Non-industry experts … and health agencies … are finding a link with glyphosate and cancer; whereas, regulatory agencies are lining up with Monsanto and Bayer that it does not cause cancer…”
Whether the county of Sonoma is whitewashing pesticide data isn’t clear and may not be fair to conclude. But Kansas-born investigative reporter Carey Gillam calls the phenomenon of burying, misinforming, and dis-informing information, Whitewash, which is the title of her new book, that is subtitled, The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science.
In Whitewash, Gillam, a former Reuters writer, offers testimony from farmers who say their “cancers were caused by glyphosate.”
The most recent data scientists have gathered suggests that Roundup and similar chemical products are unsafe at any dosage. That’s the conclusion reached by Jonathan Latham, Ph.D., the director of the “Poison Papers” project, and the editor of Independent Science News, who recently published the provocatively titled essay, “Unsafe at Any Dose? Glyphosate in the Context of Multiple Chemical Safety Failures.” Sonoma City Councilmember David Cook doesn’t have Latham’s academic credentials, but he has come to the same conclusion. “One gallon of Roundup is 128 ounces too much,” he quips.
Mitchel Cohen, a longtime environmental activist and the editor of The Fight Against Monsanto’s Roundup: The Politics of Pesticides, attended the annual “Beyond Pesticides” conference held in New York at the start of April. “The big news that emerged from the conference this year is that even very low levels of Roundup cause dramatic harmful changes in the human body,” Cohen said in a phone interview.
That’s hardly news to Bob Cannard, the Sonoma County organic farmer who has grown fruits and vegetables for decades for Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant. Cannard does not use herbicides and pesticides in orchards and gardens. He also manages hundreds of acres of organic vineyards owned by Fred Cline of Cline Family Cellars. “It’s less expensive to grow naturally than with chemicals,” Cannard says, asking rhetorically, “What business is it that benefits from poisoning its customers?”
Cline grew grapes conventionally until Cannard persuaded him to switch to organic on the grounds that chemicals like Roundup were harmful to the environment and to humans.
“All and any use of Roundup is excessive,” Cannard said on a sunny, windy day on one of the expansive properties he manages for Cline. Cannard’s contemporary, Phil Coturri, the dean of organic vineyard managers, oversees about 40 organic vineyards in Sonoma and Napa. “I don’t know why anyone would want to spray chemicals and live and work next to a toxic dump,” Coturri says.
Behind the wheel of his pickup truck, Cannard explains that he has followed Edwin Hardeman’s case against Monsanto. “I’m glad that the whole issue is coming into broader consciousness,” he says. “Roundup has been promoted as safe and innocuous, but it’s toxic.”
Cannard has drafted an anti-glyphosate measure he wants to put on the ballot in Sonoma County next fall. The key passage reads, “We the people of Sonoma County direct the agricultural commissioner to forbid the use of glyphosate in our county effective immediately, and we direct the board of supervisors to develop protocols for all agricultural activities that utilize herbicide, pesticides, and fungicides by the year 2031.”
Cannard needs 22,000 valid signatures to qualify the measure, and he plans to print and distribute petitions, launch a website, place ads in local newspapers and raise the public discourse about how humans use and abuse soils, air, wildlife, and water. It could be said that Cannard aims to blow the whistle on the chemical industry. Growing up in Kenwood, he worked for the family nursery, which sold plants and an array of products designed to kill insects and weeds.
“As a boy I handled DDT, Malathion and Paraquat, which was manufactured by Chevron,” he says. “Big drums with chemicals came into the store. We scooped them out, placed them in bags, labeled them and sold them. I was saturated with poisonous products. It’s amazing I survived, though my brother Jack got leukemia because of 2,4, 5-T, which, when combined with 2,4-D, produced Agent Orange. Eating healthy helped restore Jack.”
In Vietnam, according to Red Cross estimates, Agent Orange caused disabilities and other health problems for one million people.
In the cab of his pickup, Cannard recounts some of the changes he’s witnessed in Sonoma Valley agriculture. “I remember Julius Pagani’s Kenwood vineyard,” he says. “Before he disked, he allowed the wild oats and mustard to bloom and set seeds. That was sanity. Then the new people arrived, ripped out the old vines, planted new vines, sprayed everything and cultivated as soon as possible. Once upon a time, milkweed grew in the ditches and attracted thousands of Monarch butterflies. Not anymore.”
No one is darker than Cannard, or more hopeful. While he says, “The whole planet is poisoned with glyphosate,” he also looks to towns like Mals in the Italian Alps, where the citizens voted to ban all pesticides. He thinks Mals might serve as a model for Sonoma.
Cannard gets down on his hands and knees to remove the weeds from his herb garden. If he didn’t, they’d push out the herbs. But on the whole, he likes weeds and doesn’t see eye-to-eye with people like Sonoma Public Works Director Colleen Ferguson who feels Roundup should be used to eradicate them. Ferguson has warned that banning glyphosate would mean a lot more weeds in Sonoma. That’s no tragedy in Cannard’s book. He doesn’t describe the movement he wants to help create as “grass roots,” but rather as “weed roots.”
“Weeds protect the soil,” he says. “They harvest carbon from the air and they grow nutrients.” He also likes most bugs and doesn’t wage war against them. This spring, he was saddened to see a county employee spraying chemicals along Adobe and Stagecoach roads near the border of Green String Farm, where he grows vegetables organically.
“Every inch of ground along the roads was sprayed and poisoned,” he says. “It’s no wonder there are no frogs, no turtles, and no Coho. We need nature,” he adds, “and nature needs us, but without the chemicals. Rachel Carson is as timely now as when she published Silent Spring 57 years ago, in 1962.”
Jonah Raskin is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.